Jul 18, 2012

Roots

The miniseries Roots was the biggest event of the 1976-77 television season,  and turned out to be the most watched fictional television program of all time.  Everyone saw it, everyone was talking about it.  Most teenagers knew something about slavery already, of course, but Roots put a human face on the African-American experience.

Not the gay experience, though.

Based on the the history of Alex Haley's ancestors, it was billed as "The Saga of an American Family," and it was indeed about "family," that is, men and women coming together and having children and raising children.

The only significant male bonding takes place in Africa, when a teenage Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton) roughhouses with his friends, and just after he arrives in America, when an older slave named Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) takes it upon himself to teach Kunta Kinte about his new life.

(The older Kunta Kinte, renamed Toby, was played by John Amos.)







After that, for the next 100 years, men are brutal enemies or irrelevant.  The only bonds that matter are the bonds that "lead to new life," bonds between men and women: Kunta Kinte (renamed Toby) and Belle, their daughter Kizzy and Noah, her son Chicken George and Matilda, their son Tom Harvey and Irene.  In Roots: The Next Generation (1979), we discover that Tom and Irene's daughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer, Will and Cynthia's daughter Bertha marries Simon Haley, and Bertha and Simon's son Alex writes Roots.  See how life goes on when there are no gay people around?

Except Alex Haley himself never married.

Similarly, the only significant beefcake is visible in Africa and just after Kunta Kinte arrives in America. Mostly it's Kunta Kinte's body, while he's being humiliated and tortured.

After that, for the next 100 years, all men are fully clothed.

Many African cultures validate same-sex relationships.  Gay men and lesbians were an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s outpouring of African-American artistic, literary, and musical genius.  But their voices are missing from Roots.  It was as if Alex Haley believed that to be black is to be heterosexual.

Their voices are also missing om nearly every depiction of the African-American experience.  It is as if Hollywood believes to be gay is to be white.

See also: Beefcake and Bonding in Movies about Slavery